Memento Mori

I write these words during a week some predict new infections and deaths from COVID-19 may come to a peak in the United States. It is plain that for many this will be a very bad week. For Christians, this is Holy Week, the final week of Lent. For Jews, Passover in 2020 begins on the night on which I which I write.

“Memento mori.” One of the key aspects of Lent is remembering that we will die. During many years, I suspect this only receives passing attention while we go on with our lives. Not this year. This year has smacked us in the face with death. We have watched death tolls rise in country after country, and now in our own. Suddenly a trip to the grocery store feels like running a perilous gantlet.

“Memento mori.” I’m geeky enough to follow statistics. One of the interesting ones I’ve noticed in our state’s statistics is the median age of those who have died. At present, it is 78. What is striking is that 78.6 years is also the average life expectancy in the US. Now there is some difference between median and mean, but it was close enough that it strikes me that the distribution of deaths approximates that in normal life–some die at every age, but the older you are, the more likely you are to die if you contract this disease. Of course the truth is, the older you are, the more likely you are to die, period. The only thing that is different is that because of this disease, more people at all ages are dying at present. For all of us, this is real!

“Memento mori.” C.S. Lewis reminds us in his sermon Learning in War-Time that war does not increase the frequency of death–“100 percent of us die.” Lewis argues that the one distinctive thing about war is that it forces us to remember death. Young soldiers make out wills. How many of us have made out wills and advance directives in this crisis?

“Memento mori.” The practice of remembering that we will die in Lent is not an exercise in fear or hopelessness. It is an honest reckoning, that along with Christ, we must go through Good Friday before there is Easter. Passover, for the Jews remembers another plague, the death of the firstborn throughout Egypt, sparing the Jews only because of the lamb’s blood on their door posts. Good Friday reminds us of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Death will take us from this life and this world, but it will not take us from God. As death did not hold Jesus, we believe that death will not hold us. Beyond Good Friday is Easter–Resurrection Day. One day, “he (or she) is risen” will be said of all of us who hope in Christ.

“Memento mori.” I do not think we can truly live with joy in each day without coming to terms with our death. To suppress it, to ignore it, to fear it, to obsess over it robs us of the deeper richness of life’s most ordinary joys. I recognize and respect that not all who read this embrace what I believe. What these times confront all of us with is the real possibility of our death, or that of someone we love. It poses, if we will face it, perhaps the most important question of human existence, which is how we will come to terms with our mortality. Remembering that we will die, and determining how that will shape the way we however many years are yet given us may be the great gift of this pandemic.

Stay safe, my dear friends.

Review: Philippians

Philippians

Philippians (Kerux Commentaries), Thomas Moore and Timothy D. Sprankle. Grand Rapids, Kregel Ministry, 2019.

Summary: A biblical commentary on Paul’s letter to the Philippians combining exegetical and preaching resources for each passage.

This commentary represents one of the first of a new commentary series published through Kregel Ministry. The approach in the Kerux Commentaries is to pair a biblical scholar and a preaching author, either a pastor or homiletician. The commentary is organized by preaching passages under an overall outline of the book. Following an overview of all the preaching passages and introduction covering typical introductory issues are exegetical and preaching resources for each passage.

Each section includes a brief section on the literary structure and themes of the passage, a short exposition, and then verse by verse exegesis of the passage including renderings of key Greek terms, sidebars on cultural backgrounds (e.g. slaves and servants, saints from Philippians 1:1-8), and the theological focus of the passage. This is followed by Preaching and Teaching Strategies: an exegetical and theological synthesis, the main preaching idea, contemporary connections, a section on creativity in presentation, a summary of preaching points, and then a list of discussion questions and additional resources.

The commentary highlights well some of the key themes in Philippians: the themes of joy, partnership in the gospel, the call to stand together, looking to others interests, highlighting the example of Christ, and the surpassing worth of knowing Christ and dependency upon him. In very readable form the exegetical part of the commentary sets out key textual issues, terms, and background and sums this up well in identifying the theological focus of the passage.

I found the preaching section less helpful. The preaching strategies did flow from exegesis and model this practice making a number of good points and suggested some creative ideas for presentation (e.g. on Philippians 1:27-30 on loyalty to Christ, suggesting use of a kingdom “pledge of allegiance.”). Perhaps it is my own preference to determine the preaching idea and homiletic outline from my own study and not preach someone else’s material, but I found these sections less helpful than the exegetical sections. Still, the preaching author often raised good ideas that “preached” to me, for example, from Philippians 2:5-8, he poses good questions about what it means to climb down the ladder of privilege.

The discussion questions are helpful for those using this commentary with adult education groups or those teaching the passage in a Bible study. The authors also offer an extensive reference section with eighteen pages of contemporary books, commentaries and articles on Philippians.

This commentary strikes a good balance between the highly technical commentaries and the popular commentaries that are often transcribed sermons. This is helpful for pastors and lay teachers who may not have extended time for study but want to give exegetically sound messages. Just don’t plagiarize the preaching material. I might be in the audience!

________________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: When Books Went to War

When Books Went to War

When Books Went to WarMolly Guptill Manning. New York: Mariner Books, 2014.

Summary: This history of efforts to supply American servicemen in World War 2 with books.

The war against Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany was not just a war of bullets and armies. It was a war of ideas and books. In 1933, in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, thousands of books were burned. Books by Jews. Books by foreigners. Books that dissented from the views of Mein Kampf. As Nazi armies marched through Europe, they destroyed libraries, and millions of books.

As the United States slowly edged toward war, and then rapidly mobilized after Pearl Harbor, American leaders quickly came to realize that soldiers needed more than barracks and weapons, training and strategy. They needed ideas, and in the many idle hours between intense battles, they needed diversions. They needed books.

President Roosevelt put it well:

People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know books are weapons.

Molly Guptill Manning recounts the massive mobilization effort that put over 140 million books into the hands of Americans in the services, and the powerful impact those books had on those who received them.

While libraries existed on posts, those deployed often lacked greatly. The first response was the National Defense Book Campaign, organized by the American Library Association under the leadership of Althea Warren, director of the Los Angeles Public Library. She launched a national book donation drive with a goal of 10 million books. Eventually 18 million were collected in what became the Victory Book Campaign. However, not all the books were suitable for soldiers and most were heavy hardcovers, not idea for someone’s pack or duffle.

Eventually this effort gave way to the American Services Editions, payed for by the military. Cost constraints combined with an effort of mass production of a number of editions led to adopting a paperback format, produced for roughly five cents a book. Each months, sets were sent out to all the service units. They consisted of classics, how to books, modern fiction, history, biography, sports. They were selected with an eye to soldiers interests. They fit in a soldiers pocket and were so popular that they were traded around until they fell apart

Manning recounts how deeply these were appreciated. Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the all-time favorite, reminding so many soldiers of home. Soldiers could be found reading them on transports and in fox holes, wherever they could find a moments respite. Books weren’t censored for points of view. Some were controversial, like Strange Fruit, an account of interracial marriage, or steamylike Forever Amber. All of these kept soldiers morale up and reminded them for what they were fighting. Eventually, more books were produced than the Germans destroyed, some by those banned authors. In the end, books not only went to war, they won.

Most fascinating to me was how Manning connects this massive book effort with the massive influx of GIs into colleges after the war, and their seriousness about learning. She raises the question of whether the steady diet of good reading the soldiers experienced during the war (which may not have been true of them before) whet their appetites for serious study that “wrecked the curve” for other undergraduates.

I write this review during “stay at home” orders during a pandemic. This is a very different war. We act collectively by isolating. It will be interesting to see the role books play during this war, when so many other forms of entertainment are available on all our devices. Yet books have a power to form ideas, to capture imagination, to re-fashion our world as we enter that of a book. The stories evoked in my minds eye are always richer than the rendering of another. I know the importance of the idea of relief to those on the edge, but I wonder if for some, the chance to have a collection of new titles delivered each month would be a welcome gift. Should there be an equivalent to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for adults? Will our “time out” be long enough to foster a lifelong love for this literature?

Perhaps someday, someone will write a book of this time titled When Books Sustained a Nation. One an only hope.

Using Online Media During Covid-19

wp-15861322371253486069093988766868.jpg

Staying home, modeling my homemade, no-sew mask. Bob Trube © 2020

Amid sheltering in place during Covid-19, I’ve had to think through my use of online media in this time, in both professional and personal life. I’m still in process, particularly as I observe the various controversies, rumors, information, and dire news reports coming from every country on the planet. I’m sobered by what our first responders and frontline healthcare personnel must face, by news of friends and friends of friends who are fighting infections, and the growing death tolls. In addition to newscasts, much of this information comes over online media. Like most of you, I’m trying to figure out how to walk the line between denial and obsession, of staying informed without being overwhelmed. Here are some thoughts in how I’m thinking about and dealing with this. I’m still figuring it out, and what I say may not fit your situation, so, for what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts:

  1. I’m trying to take steps to limit how much I read online. It’s a real temptation for me. I love to learn about things, which probably accounts for the shelves and shelves and piles of books in my home. I’m learning to take times of the day to check the news, and other times where I put the phone in another room, particularly when I want to give uninterrupted time to work projects or reading. If I don’t, there is always another story, and in time, even though I’m pretty even keel, I get weighed down.
  2. When I read about things that heighten my anxiety, or news about friends getting infected, or facing other struggles, I stop and pray. Often, it is just a breath prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” I try to jot a note to express care. I use messaging or emails to check in with others who I care about. I often feel helpless, but I believe God can take the little I can offer and multiply it.
  3. Much of my online presence is about books and reading, and I will stick to that. I’ve been reading Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War right now. It is a wonderful account of how important books were to those in service during World War 2. We’re in a war, facing both dire prospects and extended time at home, books can inspire and divert us. So I’ll keep reading and reviewing and posting articles about books on my Facebook page, as well as “questions of the day,” quotes, and humor. To laugh, to share about books we’ve loved, and talk about books we might read next is an act of hope, and an affirmation of life.
  4. I sense that some of those I work with are already burning out on Zoom. It’s unavoidable for faculty and students I work with. But it is also tiring, because we “see” others, but have to work harder to connect. I’m learning to break these sessions up into smaller doses. I’m also wondering if sometimes, a phone call, or even an old-fashioned handwritten note or letter may be better. Zoom is a great tool, but I’m starting to rummage around and ask if there are other tools in the toolbox I should be using.
  5. I am not going to amplify the dire news, rumors, and controversy. Other than one instance of advocating around an issue that personally affected friends I care about, I try to keep it positive. I love to give shout-outs to our governor and state health director (a fellow Youngstowner and Youngstown State alumnus!) who are giving great leadership to our state. Otherwise, I try to post humor, encouraging stories like the technology developed locally to sterilize the critical N95 masks up to 20 times, and other things, like a video showing how you can make a no-sew mask, along with a selfie of me with one of those masks. There are news outlets and plenty of others bringing dire news, conflicting stories, and controversies. I’ll leave it to them. As for politics, I say the one referendum that counts is the first Tuesday of this November.

There is a scripture I was reminded of again today that shapes my approach:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8, NIV).

Nearly seven years ago when I launched this blog, I wrote, “We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world.” I think we need this now as much as ever. So I will keep writing about our common love of all things related to books. I will keep writing stories about Youngstown. And I will keep cherishing each day God gives for us to share on this media.

Stay safe dear friends.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Crandall Park

ea293f952c67cd4bc2f0106b647efa6c

Sledding at Crandall Park, photo by Don Tankovich, used with permission.

I grew up on the West Side and both sets of grandparents lived on the south side. My only childhood memory was one time when my grandparents took me there. I remember the lake, a play area, tree-lined walkways, and heavily wooded areas. In more recent years, while my parents were still living at Park Vista, we drove past Crandall Park and the Crandall neighborhoods, which offered glimpses of their grand past.

Crandall Park is named after Nelson Crandall, who made his and his family’s fortune working at Brier Hill Iron and Coal Works. He was the secretary for the estate of Governor David Tod, and later collaborated with Henry Tod and John Stambaugh in building the Tod House in 1870. When Youngstown was still a village centered around the downtown, Tod bought a farm north of the village, bordering on the Trumbull County line at Gypsy Lane that also included the land that would become Crandall Park proper surrounded by many of the stately homes that survive to this day.

Beginning in 1904 The North Heights Land Company and the Realty Guarantee Trust Company acquired the land and began development of the area. The Realty Trust donated the ravined area of Andrews Hollow, the portion west of Fifth Avenue becoming Crandall Park, named after the Crandall family. They extended Fifth Avenue north to Gypsy Lane and built a collection of some of the grandest homes in Youngstown along the roads surrounding the park and nearby areas, homes that would be the residences of industry magnates like Thomas Bray, president of Republic Iron and Steel, Frank Purnell, President of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Edward Clark, president of Newton Steel, and George Brainard, president of General Fireproofing. Philip Wick, Myron Arms, Joseph Schwebel, and Joseph Lustig also owned homes in the area.

As far as Crandall Park itself, by 1925 the lake had been created, tennis courts and picnic areas built. A pavilion was built in 1930, and the picnic shelter in 1936. As the photo above indicates, the hills of the ravine provided a great place for sledding, and when the lake froze, a great place for ice skating. The shelter and the picnic areas offered many locations for family gatherings. The park vied with Wick Park for the honor of most scenic city park in Youngstown.

Most of us remember this area with memories like these. Like other parts of Youngstown, it suffered decline with the mill closures in the late 1970’s. Housing stock south of the park has decline more but the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation has been working with neighborhood residents since 2014 to renew the area. The area has been designated the Crandall Park-Fifth Avenue Historic District. In 2017 the pavilion in Crandall Park was reopened after renovations.

One hopes this work continues. Grand homes, a beautiful park for community gatherings. Shaded streets and boulevards. A reminder of Youngstown’s grandeur, and perhaps a sign of hope for the future.

Review: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1), Octavia E. Butler. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (first published 1993).

Summary: Lauren Olamina, whose life has been spent in a guarded enclave from a violent society, flees with two other survivors when it is destroyed, the core of an Earthseed community, the outgrowth of a religious vision.

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God is Change.

Lauren Olamina is a most unusual founder of a religion. Brought up by a Baptist father and distant stepmother trying to survive in dystopian southern California in a radically deteriorating United States, she is forced to take a hard look at the beliefs she embraces, around the core ideas that open this book quoted above. She also struggles with hyperempathy–when others are in pain, she feels it. And if she must use violence against another, she feels that as well–until the other dies.

Her father’s approach was to try to preserve his religious beliefs and some form of community within the walled cul-de-sac he and a collection of inter-married families live. Then her brother is brutally murdered and her father disappears. The fabric of society is shredding with social inequities, widespread poverty, and a particularly scary substance addiction called pyro or ‘ro, in which users are impelled to set fires engaging in the orgiastic destruction of property and people, followed by the looting of anything remaining of value. Lauren has been preparing, formulating ideas, learning about survival, and creating an emergency pack. She envisions creating resilient communities that not only survive this dystopia but spread humanity to the stars.

Yet even she is surprised when the pyromaniacs attack and destroy her enclave. She and two other barely survive, beginning a flight to who knows where and a fight to survive on the road. Slowly they gather others, more guns, and form a kind of community life around Lauren’s ideas. Bankole, a doctor who owns land up north occupied by relatives, offers a place of refuge. But will this rag tag group that includes escaped slaves (yes, there is slavery in this dystopia) and children, fend off murderers, maniacs, and fire?

Butler does not explain the reason for the deterioration of the social fabric of the country, apart from a prescient anticipation of global warming that leaves California drier, warmer, more prone to catastrophic fire (she wrote this in 1993). Yet there are suggestions that she is anticipating the outworking of the growing economic inequities in America that we see–debt slavery, a permanent underclass, growing substance abuse and violence.

It is unsettling to read this amid a pandemic, particularly where we see the rapid unraveling of an economy in literally days. While it seems resources are being mobilized to help those on the margins, it makes one pause to think what may happened if the illness or the economic factors lead to the exhaustion of resources and increasing hopelessness and desperation.

Butler portrays two contrasting responses. Lauren’s father tries to hang on to the old ways, creating an enclave in both mind and physical circumstances, building the walls spiritually and physically and setting guards to keep out those who would endanger their increasingly fragile lifestyle, while trusting in the protection of God.

Lauren believes that the only God is Change and that human beings are meant to be Change-makers, those who make God by their actions. She forms a community committed to each other believing that their actions, the changes they make as they set out on the road. Will self and mutual reliance be enough?

I find myself wondering if the dichotomy Butler offers is too simple. Are our only two choices enclaves and change-making? A more troubling question is how believing communities of any stripe exist when order breaks down and violence reigns. The use of violence in defense is the one thing both “communities” share in common in this story.

Perhaps the warning in this book is to act before social order breaks down. Most of us don’t think a breakdown of the social fabric similar to what is portrayed in this book can happen, and we become complacent toward rhetoric and economic structures that accentuate divides. Parable of the Sower, which occurs in 2024 in the United States is just too close to home not only in time and place and social conditions. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Review: Still Life

still life

Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache #1), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2005.

Summary: The suspicious death of Jane Neal a day after her painting is accepted into an art show brings Gamache and his team to Three Pines, and to the grim conclusion that someone in this small community is a murderer.

Jane Neal was an elderly retired teacher, seemingly beloved by everyone in the secluded town of Three Pines, near the Quebec/US border. Everyone had heard she was an artist. Yet no one had been allowed beyond her kitchen or saw her work. That is, until she entered a piece into the local Arts Williamsburg show–a painting called Fair Day. At first the jurors thought it was a child’s drawing, but then felt there was a peculiar power to this piece. When Jane learns the painting was accepted, she invited all her friends to a party the night of the show opening, at her house–Olivier and Gabri, the gay couple who owned the Bistro, Myrna, the bookstore owner, Ruth Zardo, the brilliant and curmudgeonly poet, Clara and Peter, an artist couple, and Ben Hadley, a bachelor artist whose mother Timmer had recently died after a battle with cancer.

The next morning Jane was found dead in the forest by Ben Hadley. She died of an arrow through the heart, an arrow removed. And so Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team discover Three Pines. At first the investigation appears to indicate a hunting accident, perhaps from a hunter from away who thought he had spotted a deer. Then a troubled youth, or his father. The youth had been part of a group throwing manure from a flower bed at Olivier and Gabri, mocking them for being gay. Jane, on the morning before she died yelled at them to stop. Suspicion then turned to Yolande, Jane’s niece, who thought she would inherit Jane’s estate, or her uncouth husband or son. Eventually the focus turns to those in the cafe who had received Jane’s invitation. Among these people, all of whom seemed friends, and friends of Jane, there was a murderer.

While Gamache and his core team of Jean Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle LaCoste work together as a well-oiled machine, a new agent, Yvette Nichol, the daughter of immigrants, tries so hard to succeed on her first assignment that she fails to listen to Gamache, follow through on leads, and asserts herself where she is not welcome. Gamache, after much effort, must send her home. Yet her insights do move the investigation forward, leaving us wonder if this is the last we will see of her.

I picked up one of the books of this series (#10), loved it, and was told by others who like Penny’s work that I had to go back to the beginning. So I have, and I would say it was worth it, and I intend to go on. Penny has created a lovable mix of townsfolk and an investigative team. Gamache is the classic detective, seemingly slow at times, who watches, listens, and thinks, and tries to cultivate these virtues in others, including Nichol. There is a winsome integrity about him, typified in his willingness to accept a suspension rather than arrest a man he considered innocent.

I have encountered many who wish Three Pines was a real town, a place of rural beauty and rich local culture. In this book, we learn the reason for the name. We also discover for all its beauty and seemingly serene atmosphere, it is hardly a place of still life. Penny reminds us that deep within people we think we know, there are hidden depths, and hidden secrets, that sometimes blossom into exquisite beauty, or the most terrible acts. In words quoted by Jane from W.H. Auden the night before she died:

Evil is unspectacular and always human,
and shares our bed and eats at our own table.

Or in words on Jane Neal’s mirror, words Agent Nichol did not yet understand, “You’re looking at the problem.”

The Month in Reviews: March 2020

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This has been a weird and scary month for us, no matter where on the planet we live. Suddenly, the world shifted into discussions of attempting to flatten exponential curves in country after country, in whole economies shutting down, and of infections and deaths. Suddenly, the number of books we read, or even what we were reading seemed far less important. We struggled with not being able to focus. Yet there were hours at home, and eventually we had to get away from the grim news. Losing ourselves in a good book sometimes was the one of the things (perhaps second only to prayer) to help us preserve our sense of sanity and some sense of perspective. Some of the books on this list even took on a relevance I hadn’t thought of when I requested them for review–things like community, the “bonus time” all of us are living each day, and praying in a distracting world.

paul's idea of community

Paul’s Idea of Community (3rd Edition), Robert J. Banks. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020. A study of how Paul understood the nature of community in the churches he planted, considered against the cultural backgrounds of first century AD Greco-Roman culture. Review

Loving Your Community

Loving Your CommunityStephen Viars. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. A pastor whose church has developed a number of community-based outreach ministries, describes their journey into this work, and the variety of ministries that have resulted. Review

living in bonus time

Living in Bonus TimeAlec Hill. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. The President Emeritus of InterVarsity/USA recounts his experience of surviving cancer, how he experienced disorientation and growth, and reframed his purpose in life in light of his “bonus time.” Review

unsettling truths

Unsettling TruthsMark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.  Shows how “The Doctrine of Discovery,” an outgrowth of a Christendom of power rather than relationship has shaped a narrative of the United States, to the dehumanizing  of Native Peoples, slaves, and other non-white peoples. Review

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943). A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn. Review

our man in havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1958). A struggling Englishman in 1950’s Cuba is recruited to be a secret agent for MI6 and ends up deceiving the service only to find his fabrications becoming all too real. Review

Running for our Lives

Running for our LivesRobb Ryerse (Foreword by Brian D. McLaren). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.  A northwest Arkansas pastor decides to run in a primary against one of the most powerful Republican representatives in a grassroots campaign to restore a say in government to ordinary citizens. Review

Three pieces of glass

Three Pieces of GlassEric O. Jacobsen. Grands Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020. Focuses on loneliness and belonging and the influence of cars, television, and smartphones on the experience, and even design of community and the choices we may make to foster belonging. Review

including the stranger

Including the Stranger (New Studies in Biblical Theology), David G. Firth. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019. A study of the former prophets that makes the case that God was not an exclusivist who hated foreigners, but that God welcomed the stranger who believed and excluded the Israelite who repudiated him. Review

the big fella

The Big FellaJane Leavy. New York: HarperCollins, 2018. A biography of Babe Ruth, with the narrative of his life connected with a day by day account of a barnstorming tour of the country after his home run record-breaking 1927 season. Review

From Nature to Experience

From Nature to Experience, Roger Lundin. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Using two essays by Emerson, “Nature” and “Experience,” traces the shift in American moral and cultural authority during the last two centuries. Review

the possibility of prayer

The Possibility of PrayerJohn Starke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. We both long for a rich prayer life yet think it impossible for all but the spiritual elite; this work points to the possibility and practices that invite us into that life. Review

Best Book of the Month: I’m going with an American classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I can understand how this coming of age story was a favorite of soldiers in World War 2. For soldiers coming out of the Depression, I could see how this story of a family struggling through poverty, and a young girl’s dreams and aspirations, and the evocation of place that all come together in this story.

Quote of the Month: Most of us live in a tension between longings for a deeper life with God, and wondering whether prayer is really a productive use of our time. John Starke challenges the thinking at the heart of this tension:

The Bible challenges our utilitarianism. The prayers in the Psalms use words of waiting, watching, listening, tasting, and seeing, meditating and resting. It’s remarkable how inefficient these actions are. They aren’t accomplishing anything. There isn’t a product on the other side of these prayerful actions. Yet over the years they bring steadfastness, joy, life, fruitfulness, depth of gratitude, satisfaction, wonder, an enlarged heart, feasting, and dancing. (p. 7).

What I’m reading: I discovered Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache recently, but made the mistake of starting with book ten. Since then, I’ve picked up the first five and am nearly finished with Still Life, the first in the series–and I’m loving this introduction to Gamache, Beauvoir, LaCoste, and Three Pines. I also started into Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. I’m not sure picking up dystopian fiction was the best choice in this season, but Butler creates an interesting scenario of the breakdown of American society in set in the years following 2024, and the visionary response of a young girl trying to survive in an increasingly violent and changing world. I’m also reading a collection of writings by Benjamin B. Warfield, one of the Princeton theologians who both affirmed the inspiration, authority and trustworthiness of the Bible, yet did not think, with some qualifications, that evolution need not conflict with the Bible. To round it out, I’m working through a new commentary on one of my favorite Bible books, Philippians.

Reading is different right now. Sometimes it is escape. But at other times, it is an effort to understand the times, and gain perspective to live in this time as each day unfolds. I hope this will be so for you as well and that you are granted health in body and spirit in this time. Stay safe, friends. By grace, I hope to meet you here with another month’s tally when we get through the month of April.

Supporting Authors While Staying Home

Many people are hurting during the lockdowns and stay at home mandates most of us are living under. While I focus on things related to books (because that what this blog is about), I realize there are many others who are hurting, especially those who were living from paycheck to paycheck before this all started, and others on the edge.

I’ve written about the challenges facing bookstores. Another group struggling are authors. Imagine in particular that you had a book launching any time after about March 15 or in the next few months. No book tours. Amazon has de-emphasized books. Most bookstores are closed. When things open up again (which may not be for months) a new raft of books will be coming out. Authors with books launching now may face real losses.

How can the reading public help?

  1. Read reviews for books in the genres you like to find out about newly published works. Three review sites open without subscriptions that you might check are Publishers Weekly, NPR Book Reviews, and Kirkus. There are many others and you might have your favorites.
  2. Of course, if you have a favorite author, they may have a mailing list and you can learn about new books they have coming out. Often, they post personal updates that you will never see otherwise.
  3. Your favorite bookstore’s website also is a good source of news about new books. The advantage here is that if you find something you like, you can order them in a one stop shopping experience.
  4. Have you launched an online book group? You could host an author event! I’ve done this in another setting and even was able to arrange book discounts with the publisher.
  5. Once you get into the book, talk it up with your friends on social media so people not only hear about the book, but the reasons why you like it. I often buy books recommended by others. Word of mouth works.
  6. Are you on GoodReads? Add a short review to your rating. Or if you are like me, blog on books. Some creative people even do video blogs or video posts on social media.

Making efforts to support the authors we like is another way of preserving cultural goods during this crisis. I have loved Hilary Mandel’s historical fiction on Thomas Cromwell. So I ordered The Mirror and the Light from my favorite indie store. And the image above gives the book one more well deserved shoutout. Look for a review as well! Perhaps one of the ways of we live with hope is to look beyond this crisis, whether in our support of our favorite bookstores or favorite authors.

Review: The Possibility of Prayer

the possibility of prayer

The Possibility of PrayerJohn Starke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: We both long for a rich prayer life yet think it impossible for all but the spiritual elite; this work points to the possibility and practices that invite us into that life.

Many of us approach this matter of prayer deeply torn. We long for a rich relationship with God, and yet our fast-paced, disruptive lives, makes such prayer seem the preserve of a spiritual elite. We long for transformation, yet struggle with prayer seeming to be a non-productive practice in our “show me the money” world.

John Starke names the issue for us:

   The Bible challenges our utilitarianism. The prayers in the Psalms use words of waiting, watching, listening, tasting, and seeing, meditating and resting. It’s remarkable how inefficient these actions are. They aren’t accomplishing anything. There isn’t a product on the other side of these prayerful actions. Yet over the years they bring steadfastness, joy, life, fruitfulness, depth of gratitude, satisfaction, wonder, an enlarged heart, feasting, and dancing. (p. 7).

Starke contends that the possibility of prayer rests in a God who became incarnate in his son and who cares so deeply for us that he knows our tossing at night as well as the hairs on our head. While we pray in our nooks and crannies, we also pray in the heavenly places with Christ, entering into relationship with a God who is gloriously “heavy” [the meaning of glory], holy, joyful, beautiful, relational, and available. He suggests as we read scripture considering how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might be speaking to us, inviting us into deeper communion with the triune God.

He addresses one of our greatest barriers, which is a reactionary heart and way of life, a habit of the heart where we ignore living out of an inner life and are shaped by our responses to circumstances that only the slow, quiet work of prayer may shape. Prayer can be painful because it calls upon us to expose our vulnerabilities, and our sins to God. Learning to pray means learning to wait, to dwell or abide with God amid the ordinary, the mundane, when nothing special seems to be happening between us and God.

Starke then considers the practices that take us into this “possible” life of prayer. He focuses on the practices of communion, meditation, solitude, fasting and feasting, sabbath, and corporate worship. I particularly appreciated the chapter on fasting and feasting, particularly Starke’s recognition that we more often associate spirituality with the fasting side of this rather than a rhythm of both. I also found this striking  insight from Psalm 77:10-12 on the distinctive character of Christian meditation:

The psalmist is not engaging in passive exercises. This is not the gentle emotional work of relaxing and trying to empty your mind. It’s fighting. These are intentional habits: I will appeal; I will remember; I will ponder; I will meditate. Christian meditation is fighting, grasping for joy, It’s intentionally and regularly remembering and pondering the history of God’s power for his people. If you coast, you lose. (p. 111).

Starke offers spiritual wisdom borne of his own spiritual journey and pastoral ministry among busy New Yorkers. He encourages us that engaging with God is possible for ordinary saints if we begin to pursue the slow, quiet ways of prayer, and persist in a relationship that, over time, can bring great joy and transformation.

________________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.